He drives a little bronze car. He drives slowly along my dirt road. He glances at me quickly as I stand waiting on the steps. I can see blond hair, curls. He turns off the car. He reaches for something, gets out, looks at me, and never takes his eyes off me again. He shoulders a soft old book bag and walks slowly toward me. This is my son, the son I am meeting for the first time, meeting on this warm fall day after 21 years of waiting. He is thin, graceful as he walks toward me waiting for him in the sudden sun. He is not a baby. He is not a child. He is a young man, and he walks toward me while I wait. He wears jeans and a sweater striped around his chest. We are in a slow-motion film. Waiting. Receiving.
His feet are in old loafers. He comes toward me, his feet crunching on the stone path in the silence that joins us. Our eyes draw us together, lead him to me, a force joining us, a connection fierce and overwhelming as he slowly comes along the path. His teeth are brilliant white; there is a space. My father has a space like that. I step toward him. Every day for all these years I have played this scene in my mind. I have never known what to do. I do not know now. I think I must be smiling. I think I am breaking, breaking with joy, with love, with grief because here he is a grown young man, here I am middle-aged, all the years gone forever and we know it in this moment more than ever before. I reach for him and hold him in to me, a stranger, my son, this beautiful, radiant terrified son.
It is ten o'clock, October 18, 1987. The leaves in the trees glow red and gold in the sun. We are very shy together, and have no idea how to do this. We walk without talking to the railing of the porch and stand, three feet between us, facing the river, looking out over the sheep in the pasture, along the coast of Maine. We do not speak. I cannot find the question which will start our life together. I want to ask, Will you forgive me? Have you felt my love calling to you every day? Are you healthy? Are you happy? Have you been loved? Where have you lived while I loved you? Have you felt this binding cord between us? What did you do each day for 21 years? Will you forgive me?
Instead, I ask, "Do you like UNH?"
"Yes," he says, his first word. His voice is soft and deep.
"What year are you?"
"Well, I'm working my way through so I have another year."
"Did you have trouble finding my house?"
"No. No trouble."
His body is taut, as if he is ready to run or to fight something off. But his face is open, his eyes enormous, blue, set wide apart. He has a scar across his chin. His nose has been broken. He is very serious, like a boy who has known a lot of sadness. He turns to me and smiles suddenly. He has deep dimples. My brother. His uncle has these dimples. We turn to the ocean again in overwhelmed silence.
"Do you want to go for a walk?" I ask. Joy and the old sorrow tangle in wild confusion.
We walk down the little dirt road to the river. I feel as if I am walking next to myself, step for step, cell for cell. I want to tell him I love him.
"This is the owl tree," I say. "Alex and Ben* are my sons. Your brothers." I see him tense for just a moment. "They find owl pellets here, with tiny teeth and fur and bits of bone." He says, "My mother let me play hooky to go fishing with her." My mother. I breathe. Of course. Two mothers.
We sit on an old bench above the undulating seaweed. We start slowly, searching for words, for a place to start. Then we speak quickly, saying every thought that comes, our conversation leaping as we try to reconstruct the lost years. I know he will drive away that afternoon, and I don't know if he will ever come again. He must wonder if I will want him to.
"I used to walk along the train tracks at the bottom of the pasture, all the way to school," he says. His school, tracks, a pasture: I frantically try to paint the picture of his childhood. "My mother and I grew the best tomato plants in town. People drove all the way out to the farm to buy them."
"Alex wants to be on the baseball team," I say. "I quit college," I say. The sun glints gold on the water, warming us as we fight the current of sorrow running between us. Sometimes, we find ourselves laughing. Twice, he says, and twice I say, "I've never told anyone this before... ."
We climb back up the hill, and I show him the downstairs of my little house. "This is the living room. This is the kitchen where I like to cook a lot of food for my family. Do you want to see your brothers' rooms?" "Yes," he says quietly, as if it is a trial he is ready to face.
He holds back, glancing quickly into their sunny rooms, at their toys and books, at his brothers' lives, their lives here with me where they are loved, safe, not given away. We go back down to the kitchen and eat tuna sandwiches across from each other. The joy we feel right at this minute lies like a shimmering pond within our grief, the landscape of our lives.
"Would you like me to tell you about your father?" His hands stop midair, a picture of our first day I will never forget, the image of his powerful hunger to belong. "You look like him," I say gently. "He's Italian. He lives in Massachusetts. I was sixteen, and he was a senior at Boston College. We met at Hampton Beach. His name is Anthony." I watch him struggle to understand what this information means, to integrate it into his 21-year-old identity. "It doesn't matter anyway," is all he says.
We hug each other silently at his car, trying to prepare for whatever will happen next. He drives back down the road. I can hear his car moving away long after I have lost sight of it. The days of the following week roil tumultuously around every word he has said in those sunny hours, every gesture, his glance, a movement of his hand. I do not sleep. A letter comes on Friday, asking if he can come again, maybe on Sunday.
The call had come in May."Hello," she had said. "My name is Janet Larsen. I work with the New Hampshire courts. I want you to sit down. Your son is looking for you." I had been hoping for this call for 21 years, and it came so quietly into an ordinary spring day. "We will take this very slowly," she said. "This can cause enormous problems for both the child and the birth mother."
"But I'm ready now. I've been waiting for years."
"You will write letters for a while, through me. It is devastating to the child to experience a second abandonment."
"I would never abandon him."
"But you did."
"I could never abandon him again."
"But it happens a lot," she said.
"Where is he?"
"I can't tell you that yet."
"Can you tell me his name?"
I felt myself separate from my voice. Suspended time. A hush, inside me, in the air I breathed.
"His name," she said, "is Paul." This sound, this soft little sound, was electric. Twenty-one years and my son had a name. A name! Paul. I could hold this tiny word. I could hold Paul. My son had a name. My son was named Paul.
"Your son," Janet told me, "is extraordinary. Paul is a spectacular young man."
I waited every day for Paul's first letter. Finally, after three weeks, a letter came through Janet. There was a picture enclosed, my first sight of my lost child. It was blurred and gray, but here was Paul-serious, a strong jaw, intelligent eyes looking directly at the camera. A young man, the child gone forever.
Dear Meredith, he wrote. I don't know what to say. I don't know how to do this. Paul. His handwriting was big, strong, slanted along the page as if he were in a hurry. I carried his note in my pocket, reading it again and again as I stared at his photograph.
Janet called and said, "Write back to him right away. He is very scared. Ask him some questions."
Dear Paul. My name is Meredith Hall. I live in East Boothbay on the coast of Maine. I have a son, Alex, who is ten, and a son named Ben, who is seven. We keep sheep and chickens and big gardens. Please tell me about yourself. Tell me about your family. Tell me about what you like to do. I want you to know that I have always loved you.
Janet edited our letters for revealing details. They came to us blacked out: My name is Meredith —. I live in — on the coast of —. My name is Paul. I grew up on a farm in — in southern —. My mother and father, — and —, are very loving and supportive. I work sixty hours a week for — Construction Company to pay my way through the University of —. Slowly, piece by piece, our ghost lives took shape.
Our letters went back and forth, back and forth, faster and faster, three a week, four. I was in a dream. I held Alex and Benjamin close to me. Everything was changing for them, a new brother, a mother with a history. My guilt deepened. I did not tell them yet.
It is winter. He comes most Sundays. He spends part of his Christmas break here, still the mysterious family friend visiting. He is very, very funny, with an irreverent view of the world. His intelligence shines. But his sadness deepens, the price he is paying-the given away child with a separate history, struggling to belong. I think I have time to start again, to forget the years of grief, to love him so fully he will forget the life he has lived, the terrible cost to him of my actions when I was sixteen.
It is time to tell the boys. "My loves," I say to Alex and Benjamin. "I have something huge I need to tell you." I ache with guilt, understanding that I am asking them to take in stride the effects of my own enormous history.
When I tell them they have a big brother, they don't hesitate. They stand in front of Paul and grin. They climb on him, giggling. Like monkeys, they study every inch of his face and hands, studying his ears and his toes and his back, comparing their own hands and feet and hair. They peer inside his mouth. Alex drapes his arm over Paul's shoulder while they sit on the couch; Benjamin gets in under Paul's arm. All of my children are together, here in our little house in Maine. The worst seems to be over; the young children I love so completely will be all right. I am enormously grateful for their capacity to include Paul, to give him part of me.
Paul does not call me Mom, or Mum, or Mumma, like Alex and Ben. He has a mother, Ruth. He has a younger sister, Debbie, adopted when she was two. He has a father, Armi. Paul grew up poor. Very, very poor. He grew up on a farm in the poverty of rural New Hampshire, the poverty of families living in busses in the woods and cardboard being laid in a pad in the soles of shoes and newspaper being stapled on the walls of the house to keep out the wind. When Armi and Ruth adopted Paul and his sister, they had to add two new bedrooms to their tiny shack and bring the plumbing indoors. Armi worked Paul like a hired man, a child who was cold and bloodied and exhausted and frightened by the work and the machines that did it.
As a boy, Paul crept out to the living room in the night to listen to the people on the television; he studied how they spoke, shedding ain't's and don't's as he whispered back at the television's dreary light, "I am not going," and "He doesn't own a car." He became bilingual, with a language for home and a language for the world. Paul was harassed on the school bus for smelling of cow manure. Eventually he stopped taking the bus, and eventually he did his own laundry, stashing clean clothes for school in plastic buckets in the woods. He learned to sit with his feet flat on the floor so the soles of his shoes didn't show.
Armi put the scar on his chin. He put the thin white lines across the backs of his thighs and calves. He shaped his nose this way. He put the knobby bumps on his ribs, front and sides. Armi used his fists, the back of his hand, his boots. He used a shoe, lilac switches, whatever was within reach. He used his mouth: You f---- little baby. You're no son of mine. He burned his drawings. He kicked him as he made him burn his books, his notebooks of stories. Paul hid from his father on the top shelf of his closet. He hid in the woods and in the barn. His mother, his other mother, hid under the table and cried.
When he was six, eight, ten, Paul slept in the barn beside the huge warm cows or out under the pines on the hill. He hitchhiked to New York State to his Uncle Dan's when things were too bad. He was ten, twelve, tough, scared. He protected Ruth from Armi. He did a man's work outside, and cooked and did laundry inside for his little sister. The State tried again and again to take him away. F--- you, he said to the social workers, his scrawny little arms flailing. I fell down the stairs. No one hits me here. F--- you.
What is it like to learn that your child has grown up so harmed? Sometimes I condemn out loud the man and woman who raised him. Immediately, ferociously, Paul comes back at me: "Don't you dare criticize my mother and father. They raised me." I know instantly that he is right. I abandoned my baby. Who am I to condemn the strangers who took him home?
When I was sixteen a doctor gave my baby to a very poor woman who cried every time in his office. He gave my baby to Ruth and Armi. I was told my baby would live in Virginia. I thought he rode his bike to school humming. That he held his father's hand when he walked along the river that must flow behind his house, that he made birthday cakes with his mother, standing on the kitchen chair by the counter. I thought he went to sleep warm and safe, curled maybe around the empty place of adoption but safe and loved. Instead, he lived a mile from my father. Armi made him cut lilac switches and bring them to him. Armi had a wide, white leather belt with rows of holes all the way around it. Of course, I have never seen this belt. But I remember it now, always.
Somehow, Paul knows how to love us and how to be loved. He is tender, patient, generous, funny. In the kitchen at suppertime, he walks in the door yelling, "Who wants cake for supper?" On the sidelines at Alex's or Ben's soccer games, he calls out, "Way to go, Alex! Smart play! Wow, Ben! Great work!" One day he says, "You guys need a new woodshed. Get out some paper and let's design a good building." He buys them carpenter's belts and tools and they spend two weeks raising walls and setting windows and roofing the steep pitch.
But these months are also confusing, upheaving. Sometimes, we all rest in our deep love for each other. Then Paul or I suddenly fly apart in despair or hurt or too much remembrance. Some days we need to be reassured that this is forever. Other days, we fight for our lives, the lives that have worked pretty well before. Sometimes we can't contain everything that has been lost. Once, Paul punches the barn door again and again, sobbing, for the first time in years he tells me, and his hands bleed. Sometimes I cry, pain rising from the place before he came. Now he is here and I finally grieve, crying in the field while Alex and Ben play in the house.
My friends tell me, "This is a miracle. It is a fairy tale with a happy ending."
I wish I had been the one to find Paul. That he would have been the one to receive the call, "Your mother is looking for you." I watched for him every single day for 21 years, looking into the faces of every child I passed, hunting for some sign of me, something that would call out to me and say, "I am your child." Skinny boy, boy running, child curled up reading, child crying, child wading in cold water. Teenager hugging his knees to his chest and watching the wind take dried leaves across the lawn. Young man calling over his shoulder to a friend. I watched every car: the child, the boy, the young man slipping past, the force of my gaze drawing his eyes to mine. Is it you? I asked as the car sped on away. Every child might be mine. But I did not try to find him.
A girl who had a baby in 1966 was not only shunned, not only cast off to her own lonely orbit. She was shamed. When I sat the first time at Dr. Quinn's desk, a stranger to me, he surveyed me silently and said, "Don't try to tell me who the father of this baby is. I know you have no idea. Girls like you never do." He said, "You need to give this baby up. You don't deserve a baby." He said, the lasting message, "You must never try to find this child. You will destroy his life if you have contact with him. If you try to find him, it will be the most selfish thing you could do. You are nothing but trouble." I understood. I was a filthy girl, a contaminant in my poor child's life. If I interfered, I would hurt him, again. It all seemed correct to me, the irrefutable truth. Shame, crushing shame, silenced me for those nine months, and for the next 21 years.
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